In the 2010−2011 school year, 41 percent of sixth-graders at Honeysuckle Middle School achieved a Level IV score (the highest level possible) on the Alabama reading assessment. After two years of implementing the Literacy Design Collaborative (LDC) across all sixth-grade classes, 60 percent of sixth-graders achieved Level IV. (See Figure 1.) Additionally, the percentage of students reaching Proficient levels increased from 81 percent to 88 percent overall.
At Honeysuckle Middle School (HMS) in Dothan, Alabama, all sixth-grade science, social studies, and English teachers made the decision to use the Literacy Design Collaborative throughout the year. The results: a 19 percent increase in Level IV achievement. Students have become more independent learners and are better able to think like a historian, scientist, or literary critic. HMS teachers and leaders agree that this success is due to teachers collaborating to help all students read complex texts and produce quality writing. While the effort involved in such an accomplishment is never easy, teachers at HMS say LDC has provided key tools and processes to engage and support students through rigorous tasks, leading to higher levels of achievement.
According to Principal Scott Faulk, the Honeysuckle faculty has embraced LDC wholeheartedly and he has seen a shift in how teachers teach and students learn. “I see more collaborative planning within and across content areas,” he says, adding that the work students are producing has improved in content classes and is more often at or above grade level. “When you can make sixth-graders write quality essays and plan how they will collect evidence, develop claims, and write correctly, that is a huge improvement.”
How did Faulk and his leadership team achieve such buy-in from faculty? Part of it was the training from Southern Regional Education Board (SREB). “Breaking the training down into segments and developing lead teachers made it easy to incorporate the process. The LDC training showed an easier way to deliver instruction using practices we already had in place. LDC didn’t reinvent the wheel; it gave it a smoother ride,” he notes. To get teachers on board, he let the work speak for itself. “We placed student work on the walls and hallways of our school. In grade-level meetings, we shared successful LDC lessons. Also, in staff meetings, we allowed teachers to share what they were doing in the classroom,” says Faulk.
At the beginning of the 2012–2013 school year, Faulk’s team used an innovative method to introduce LDC to those who had not yet been trained. On the first day of school, teachers are required to present the student code of conduct and safety procedures. Instead of having his teachers robotically read a script, Faulk asked a group of them to write one-day LDC tasks in which students had to read about school safety issues and use evidence to respond to the critical focus question “How can your actions increase or decrease your overall safety at school?” This assigned reading and writing task set the stage for the level of reading, writing, and thinking expected at HMS.
Writing lesson plans has always been fun for Samantha Garrett, a sixth-grade English teacher and one of the first introduced to LDC at HMS. Initially she found it challenging to begin with a critical focus question. “When we started, I was having a hard time going from one big idea down to smaller ideas,” says Garrett. “Personally, I don’t think that way. I start with the little things and then I connect it to a larger whole.” Now she feels that LDC has helped begin the planning process by pushing her to ask big questions. “I ask myself, does it matter 10 years from now? Is it essential for students when they grow up and become productive citizens?” Garrett says planning this way helps her make sure that what students learn is relevant, on grade level, and engaging.
HMS literacy coach Jennifer Williams says LDC has helped teachers become more intentional in their planning. She says, “Our teachers’ lessons aren’t just haphazard. There’s a goal; teachers begin with an end in mind, and they develop quality mini-tasks to get to their goal.” Since the LDC implementation began, the lesson plans have become a clear road map, describing the logical steps and skills required to meet the stated objective. Consequently, students “have a greater understanding of why they are doing certain activities and why they are relevant to them,” says Williams. Additionally, Williams believes the focus on evidence when discussing and writing about texts has ratcheted up the rigor of student work.
Backward design using LDC helps move instruction beyond the textbook, according to sixth-grade science teacher Keyanna Cole. However, using more relevant articles introduces another challenge for her: how to teach complex and grade-level texts when so many students either have disabilities or are struggling readers. Cole and her team use a variety of strategies as she designs instruction to scaffold student comprehension. She explains, “Before making the copies, I pre-chunk the article, and we read it one chunk at a time. A chunk may consist of a paragraph or two. For each chunk, we practice a certain skill that goes with what students need to learn.”
To develop these skills, she teaches her students to mark the text with a highlighter, noting key ideas and underlining important words and phrases. “To help students with close reading, we teach them to annotate using a specific format: exclamation marks mean ‘Wow, this surprised me or is something new’; underlining means ‘This is an important idea’; question marks mean ‘I’ve never heard this before, what does this mean?’; a circle means ‘I don’t know what this word means.’” Cole feels that now, no matter which class they are in, students are expected to use these types of active reading strategies to help them make thinking visible.
Agreeing with their principal, HMS teachers say LDC has helped them to better use tools already in their toolboxes. For example, teachers were already using graphic organizers. However, LDC allows them to more purposefully focus instruction on certain modes of thinking, such as cause and effect relationships, comparing and contrasting, and synthesizing different ideas. Cole says the graphic organizers are now all teacher-made. “We fit the organizers to what we are reading. If we are comparing and contrasting planets or missions, I make sure the organizers fit those skills. So I’m teaching them the reading skills and the content they need for the tests.”
LDC has also made collaborating easier and more productive. Garrett has worked with a social studies teacher to plan modules that complement her English lessons. She explains, “Let’s say his module is about the 1920s and how World War I affected the economy. I will find literature pieces that supplement that module and he will do the same for mine.” Garrett says this collaboration bears fruit when students are exposed to certain strategies, processes, and writing skills in multiple classes. “We are able to say to our students, ‘Hey, you’re doing this in science class and you’re also doing this in your social studies and English classes,’ and the students see how certain literacy strategies apply to all learning in general.”
For LDC to be worth the time and energy, teachers must feel comfortable that students are meeting key learning objectives in their content. HMS teachers see plenty of evidence that content standards are being met through modules. “Students can explain and discuss these concepts, versus giving simple answers from the end of a chapter in the textbook or memorizing vocabulary definitions. Currently, my students are learning about the solar system. They are investigating what scientists learn by sending probes to different planets. They can discuss these different experiments intelligently and relate what they have learned using evidence from their reading,” says Cole. These types of learning experiences give the modules relevance, a critical step toward increased student engagement and learning.
With these experiences and insights, HMS will continue to partner with SREB to spread the work of providing literacy-rich instruction to every student and in every classroom.